An apple a day keeps the doctor away is probably the first bit of dietary advice that most of us can remember receiving. But is it true?
Those eight words are the foundational text of a healthy diet, nutrition’s version of “thou shalt not kill”. But where did this prescription for daily apple consumption come from? And are those sweet, crispy orbs actually good for you? Or are they just hyper-sweetened, chemical-covered diabetes factories with all the nutritional value of cardboard?
We’ve been eating, breeding and debating apples for thousands of years. Originally a staple of nomadic diets in the mountainous steppes of Central Asia, apples became sought-after delicacies in the early days of oceanic trade, spreading around the Mediterranean with promises of exotic flavours from the unknown East. Apple crops had become widespread by the time of the Roman Empire, and only grew in significance from there; the glossy spheres feature heavily in Norse, German, Greek, Celtic, Chinese and, of course, Christian mythology (where do you think the phrase ‘Adam’s apple’ comes from?). They became a defining symbol of Renaissance art and inspired Isaac Newton’s theories of gravity. Apples went hand in hand with the colonisation of America, too—in the early 1800s every recipient of a land grant on the American frontier was required to plant at least fifty apple trees. These days, the world consumes around seventy million tonnes of apples a year, and more than 50 per cent of the crop is grown in China. The US, on 6 per cent, is a distant second.
The first recorded instance of apple consumption being linked to decreased medical appointments can be traced back to the February 1866 edition of a small Welsh magazine called Notes and Queries, which cited it as a proverb from Pembrokeshire: “Eat an apple on going to bed, and you’ll keep the doctor from earning his bread.” While lacking a certain pithiness, the phrase spread and morphed throughout the United Kingdom over the following decades, becoming “an apple a day, no doctor to pay” and “an apple a day sends the doctor away” before finally settling on the common form at some point in the mid-1910s.
However, with all due respect to the dietary habits of nineteenth-century Pembrokeshire, the question remains: is eating an apple every day actually good advice? Certainly, the concept of the medicinal apple is far from new—Ayurvedic medicine was talking about the health-giving properties of apples 1,500 years ago. But more recent studies suggest there may actually be something to the phrase after all. According to Melbourne naturopath Merridie Boxer, at their best apples are hard to beat. Packed full of antioxidants, vitamin C, polyphenols and soluble fibres, apples and their consumption have been linked to lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels, decreased risk of some cancers and better intestinal health. “They’re not the only thing you need in your diet,” Boxer says, “but they’re a good start.” Even better, because apples are 85 per cent water, they’ll fill you up without going overboard on the calories. It is true that the seeds contain trace amounts of cyanide, but unless you chew and swallow close to a cup’s worth you’re not in any danger, and there is some evidence that small doses of cyanide may actually help lower blood pressure.
But how worthy your apple actually is depends on the type of apple we’re talking about, and this question is harder to answer than you might think. Right now there are more than 7,500 different types of apples grown throughout the world, ranging from ultra-refined gourmet delicacies—see Japan’s hand-washed, hand-pollinated, honey-dusted Sekai-ichi apples, which sell for $21 a pop—through to buck-a-barrel juice fodder. Every single one of these ‘cultivars’ has a different shape, flavour, colour and nutritional make-up. Some are little more than candy dressed up as fruit, others are bitter or sour or waxy, and there’s at least one variety in South Korea that is a perfect cube.
The reason behind the apple’s uncommon diversity is the strange way in which it breeds. The apples you eat are not seeds in the way we usually understand them, but rather mobile wombs that contain an entirely unique sequence of genes sourced equally from two parents (with the able assistance of your local bee population). Every apple thus has the capacity to create an entirely new strain of apple tree, and wild apple trees will often contain completely different types of apples on the same branch. This means you can’t breed apples in the usual fashion. Instead, you need to clone ideal specimens by grafting parts of an existing apple tree onto wild rootstock. The result is a fruit of unmatched versatility, whose thousands of highly individualised flavours and shapes were at one point as distinctive a geographic calling card as they came. Another measure of the apple’s complexity: after scientists decoded its genome in 2010 they discovered that an apple actually has more genes than a human does—57,000 versus 30,000.
However, thanks to the nature of the modern agriculture industry, only a scarce handful of these cultivars ever make their way onto supermarket shelves, and those that do tend to be the lowest common denominator—fast growing, uniform in size and appearance, and packed with sugar. What’s more, the strains favoured by modern agribusiness are particularly susceptible to disease, meaning that apples are sprayed with more pesticides than any other crop on Earth. Indeed, apples have topped the US-based Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of the most pesticide-laden produce for five years running. So bad has the situation become that for most of the cultivars that we might recognise, the concept of an organic apple is the next best thing to an oxymoron.
This is of particular concern when it comes to apples, because while the skin contains roughly half of the apple’s nutrients, it also receives 90 per cent of the pesticides. (The disproportionate nutritional value of the skin is also why it’s important to eat the whole apple, and to avoid juiced or skinned versions as much as possible.) The situation becomes worse once the apple is picked, because it’s usually dipped in a petroleum-based wax to ensure both shininess and longevity. The philosopher John Ralston Saul may have been on to something when he defined an apple as a “spherical object created by thirty-two chemical products, then dipped in wax, then gassed. In the long run an apple is
as likely to bring on a doctor as to keep one away.”
Anna Dunn, an actual doctor, laughs when I tell her this. “Look, there’s not a lot of medical evidence to suggest that the pesticides used these days have any real negative impacts on people, nor that organic food will make you healthier. We like to freak out about chemicals, but I hate to tell you—the world is chemicals.” As for the fruit themselves: “Apples are fine. Better than most things you might find in the supermarket. But if you’re not eating them as part of a healthy, balanced diet, they’re not going to be the thing that saves you. My advice: eat real food that’s as close to how nature intended as possible. Beyond that, stop worrying and just enjoy yourself.”
Boxer is less sanguine about the situation. “Buy organic. It is 100 per cent worth it. You see how shiny those apples in the supermarket are and it’s kind of terrifying. Nothing natural should look like that.” As for having one each day, Boxer thinks it’s reasonable advice, but should be subject to the laws of seasonal eating—which means apples in autumn and winter only. “Take a risk and try something different, something fresh from a local farm. There are so many great, nutritious fruits out there, and they’re constantly coming into season.”
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